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In 2011, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra teamed up with Taken's Liam Neeson for the mystery thriller Unknown. It was a promising collaboration that had the pair eager to reunite. So when producer Joel Silver presented them a script about a harried air marshal sucked into a mysterious terrorist plot aboard an international flight, it seemed the perfect opportunity.
Together these three made Non-Stop, a high-octane thriller set sky-high and topped off with a serious ticking clock. What would you do if a text message demanded a massive ransom in exchange for the safety of everyone on your flight? This is the terrifying question facing air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) as he decides who to trust and who is dangerous.
At a pair of press conferences held in New York City recently, Collet-Serra and Silver, Neeson and his Non-Stop co-star Julianne Moore revealed to the assembled crowd some of the secrets of this mystery movie, as well as what makes Neeson such a standout action star.
Old-School Disaster Classics Inspired This Modern ThrillerFor Collet-Serra, a major part of Non-Stop's appeal was how its story trapped together such a disparate group of characters. Silver noted Non-Stop has "a Murder on the Orient Express vibe."
For her part, Moore drew comparisons to Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno, saying, "It’s very reminiscent of those older movies and of the disaster movies I loved as a kid…so it becomes classic entertainment."
Of course, with the advent of cell phones, the way people react in crisis has changed since those movies debuted. Collet-Serra pointed out how older movies seeking out a phone to make contact was often a crucial plot point. "Nowadays, there are phone everywhere and there is Google. So you cannot have that scene anymore, because usually people have access to phones and all that information," he detailed. "So, you always have to use that information against the character…You have to complicate his life through technology." In Non-Stop, cell phone use on the plane causes all kinds of issues for Neeson's air marshal. But to say more would be to reveal spoilers.
Real Airports Mean Real (And Really Long) DelaysImpressively, Non-Stop shot on location over two nights at an operating airport, more specifically New York's City's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Moore described it "like chickens being let out of a pen," recounting how the actors would wander around in between takes and just take the place in. "That was kind of strange being in a real airport," Neeson remembered.
While the setting gave them instant production value and believability, Collet-Serra confessed it came with a cost: time. The production got no special treatment when it came down to processing their equipment and cast and crew through security. And as anyone whose ever been to a major airport knows, that process is a time-suck, or a "nightmare" as Neeson described it before allowing it a necessary nightmare. "These are the times we're living in," he added.
It took three hours to process the crew, cast and equipment each night. "It was like a 16 hour day," Collet-Serra detailed. "We knew that that was going to happen, but there were three hours in the middle of the day that you couldn’t do anything, because every single piece of equipment had to go through. Everyone had to take their shoes off and the whole thing."
Don't Expect Neeson To Save You In Real LifeIn Non-Stop Neeson plays a fearless air marshal, relentlessly putting himself at risk to ensure the safety of his fellow passengers. But if you are ever on a hijacked plane with Neeson in first class, don't expect the 6'4" action star to bust out moves from his highlights reel of heroics. Asked how they'd react in real-life in such a situation, Moore was the first to admit she'd be no hero. "Screaming from the room," is how she insisted she'd respond.
As for Neeson, he mulled it over, saying, "You’d like to think you’d be heroic, but who knows, you know."
Pressed if he'd use his fight training to kick some ass, he admitted, "I don’t think so. I’m a pacifist." Besides, a lot of the fight techniques he's learned over the years, haven't exactly stuck. "You learn it and then you forget about it. It’s like learning a dance…or studying for exams, " he explained. "Exam's over and you’ve forgotten half of it, except for light saber. I know that now."
Neeson's Dialogue Helps Make Him A Unique Action HeroWith a long list of action movies to Silver's credit ("Some I’m very proud of. Some are pretty stupid."), he knows what sets a action star apart from the pack. He explained of Neeson's appeal, "It’s not as if he just became this, he knows his way around a light saber. He’s been in Star Wars. He was in Batman (Begins). He has always had an action element to his career, but it wasn’t until he got on the phone and said, 'I have a unique skill set, you kidnapped my daughter, I’m going to find you and I’m going to kill you,' (that he became an action star.) When he said that, that gave the audience a view into his psyche that he become an action hero, an action lead. He became somebody that we want to see succeed and do what he wants to do."
He went on, "Liam is the real deal. You can cut to his face and you can just stay on it…I think that the audience, they route for him and he picks very complicated characters."
Moore essentially agreed, offering, "I think that’s why audiences respond to Liam this way, because he does present a very human, sensitive, complicated person, a real person who then becomes the hero, so it’s not like a superhero coming in. You know Superman is going to be able to do it. He’s not even a real person. So, to have Liam represent that, I think it’s very. He brings a real sense of authenticity to all of these characters."
It Took How Long To Film That Bathroom Fight Scene?The bathroom on an airplane is incredibly close quarters, but in Non-Stop it's the setting for one of the film's most breathtaking action sequences. Collett-Serra and Neeson consulted actual air marshals to learn how they are trained to fight. "We sort of discovered that they have a different fighting technique," Collet-Serra explained. "They have to use pressure points and little twisting of the hands and things that we show in the movie as ways to subdue passengers, mostly from alcohol related problems."
"I worked quite closely with a special forces guy that trains air marshals," Neeson said. "We came up with the fight in the bathroom based on stuff that he was trained himself to do, very, very close combat situations, what you would do to disarm someone. So, we tried to keep that real, you know, and exciting too, of course."
After studying these techniques, Neeson rehearsed the complicated and claustrophobic fight choreography with his scene partner (whose name I'm withholding to avoid spoilers) for weeks in preparation for the shoot. "Liam does all of his fights, like entirely," Collet-Serra assured the press.
But this was just the beginning. The bathroom was built to be the size of a real airplane bathroom, though two of its walls and its mirror were removable to allow for various camera angles. Neeson and his partner never performed the whole fight in one go. Instead, they executed portions of it out of order to best suit a given camera setup. In some shots, the mirror was removed and two stand-ins stood on the other side, playing the mirror images of the leads. Collet-Serra said of the endeavor, "It was an incredible pain in the ass. It took the whole day to shoot the scene, basically, to shoot 40 seconds."
Non-Stop opens February 28th. Look for our review later this week.